UCLA starts the trip in Berkeley against the California Golden Bears, Thursday night at Haas Pavilion, one of the most difficult places in the PAC-10 for a visiting team to try and gain a victory. As is usual, the Bruins have several questions they will seek to answer as they play tat Cal, and then on Sunday at Stanford. The easiest question to answer, but the one that may be the most important is whether Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has recovered enough from his sprained knee injury to play effectively this weekend. The second question, perhaps a bit more complicated, is whether or not the Bruins can show the same intensity on the road that they showed at home against Arizona this past Saturday. In short, when the Bruins play intensely and focused, they are very difficult to pick to lose (as I found out), regardless of how the competition is playing.
Cal comes into the game playing surprisingly well, especially considering perhaps their best player, junior post DeVon Hardin (6'11" 235 lbs.), has been out injured for quite a few games. In fact, Cal is very much in the early discussions of which "bubble" teams are in the best position for an NCAA Tournament bid. The Bears currently sit at 4-3 in the conference and 12-7 overall. They have a current RPI of 42. Their two best wins were at home against Kansas State and at Maples Pavilion against Stanford. That's not exactly an overwhelming argument for their NCAA resume. On the negative side, they have been beaten at home by San Diego and suffered a 28-point shellacking on the road at DePaul. So, the bottom line: even though the PAC-10 is clearly the best conference in the country this year, and even though the conference, as of today, has an argument for the inclusion of seven teams, California probably has the weakest argument among those seven teams, at least, for now.
Senior point guard Ayinde Ubaka (6'4" 200 lbs.) is the engine that makes Coach Ben Braun's offense go. Ubaka is the sole remaining member of the heralded 2004 recruiting class (Leon Powe declared for the NBA draft and Dominic McGuire and Marquise Kately have since transferred). Ubaka is very good, and he did a tremendous job against the Bruins last year in three contests, particularly in the first game at Pauley, where he and Hardin simply overpowered the Bruins. But last season Ubaka was primarily matched up against Jordan Farmar and not Darren Collison or Arron Afflalo. With all due respect to Farmar, he isn't the defender that either Collison or Afflalo are. Ubaka is currently the #2 scorer on the Bears, averaging 41.7 PPG. He is shooting less than 43% from the floor and only 33% from behind the arc, but he is the type of player who gets better in bigger games. He's quick, has decent court awareness and he can hit the jumper, so he is fairly difficult to guard. The best way to stop or even slow down Ubaka is to get in his head. Play defense on him that is so tight; contest every shot that he will start "thinking" every time he gets the ball. That's when he starts to play poorly. His assist-to-turnover ratio is 2.4 to1, which is good, but it can also be a bit misleading. His ration goes under 2 to1 when he has faced stiffer competition. Ubaka may be 6'4", but he doesn't rebound all that well and he's an average defender (although when he decides to really focus on defense he can be very good). He's the second-best free throw shooter on the team at 84%.
At the off-guard spot, the Bears start senior Omar Wilkes (6'4" 185 lbs.). Wilkes had a strong game last season when the Bears beat the bruins at Pauley Pavilion. He's more of a shooter than a slashing threat, but he can put the ball on the floor a bit. He is averaging 10.3 PPG and is shooting 52% from the field and 41% from behind the arc. He's taken 160 shots on the season but has only been to the free throw line 12 times. Coach Ben Howland may decide to have Collison guard Wilkes, or even Josh Shipp, while Afflalo takes Ubaka. Like Ubaka, Wilkes doesn't rebound well and he has pretty low assist numbers (averaging 1.5 APG), for a guard.
The Bears have been going small since the injury to Hardin. At the ‘3' and the ‘4' spots have been freshman Patrick Christopher (6'5" 200 lbs.) and sophomore Theo Robertson (6'5" 240 lbs.), both undersized players for the positions. Robertson, who with Harden in the line-up is Cal's small forward, has the girth to be able to play defense and establish low-post position offensively. He is averaging 8.1 PPG, but is shooting only 45% from the floor. Most of these shots have been coming from 12 feet and in so Robertson isn't shooting the ball all that well. He will step outside to shoot the 3, where he is averaging 41% from behind the arc, but he has become more of an interior player with the absence of Hardin. He has been to the free throw line 39 times and is hitting 74% from the charity stripe. Robertson is strong, so expect Luc or Alfred Aboya to be matched-up on Robertson with occasional help from James Keefe and even Josh Shipp.
Christopher was a highly-ranked recruit coming out of high school, but has only seen serious floor minutes with the injury to Hardin. Christopher is a player more in the mold of Wilkes than Robertson as he is more comfortable taking jump shots than he is driving to the hoop. Since he was inserted as a starter his statistics have gotten better, but they still aren't that good. He averages 4.3 PPG and 2 RPG (although that is rising with his minutes), and has generally been overmatched against experienced players at his position in the conference. Shipp had a very average game against Arizona, but it is important for UCLA's chances in this game that he take advantage of the match-up with Christopher. Shipp won't be able to drive past Christopher, but he can certainly post him up. More importantly he can beat Christopher on the boards and get some of the "garbage" baskets that he has become known for.
Playing the one post position for the Bears is freshman Ryan Anderson (6'9" 225 lbs.). Anderson has been something of a revelation this season as he wasn't supposed to be this good this quickly. He leads the Bears in scoring (17.3 PPG) and rebounding (8.9 RPG). A player with Anderson's abilities has been a match-up problem for the Bruins this season; specifically for Lorenzo Mata. Anderson has a nice mid-range jumper, is very comfortable shooting out to the 3-point line (40%), and can bang in the post. This has been precisely the type of player that has given Mata fits this season (think Arizona's Ivan Radenovic). This may be a game where Howland allows Mata to guard Anderson without help and let him score some points, but be sure that no one else on the floor can beat the team. Anderson's defense is a bit suspect, though, and Mata may be able to take advantage of him on offensive rebounds and post plays. Anderson has shown signs of hitting the proverbial freshman "wall" recently, so it'll be interesting to see how fresh Anderson will be for the game. Plus, Mata's defense against mobile big men has been improving.
Off the bench, freshman Jerome Randle (5'9" 150 lbs.) has been getting about 15-20 MPG backing up Ubaka and Wilkes. Randle is quick and aggressive, but he is so slight that virtually every opponent he has been matched-up against has been stronger. Randle's shooting has been poor, averaging 35% from the field and 25% from behind the arc. He does take a fair amount of threes. Randle works hard, but his small frame really makes this a match-up advantage for UCLA's Collison or Russell Westbrook.
The main substitute for Robertson, Wilkes and Christopher is senior Alex Pribble (6'4" 215 lbs.), who has taken only 10 shot all season, so he isn't exactly one of the top offensive options when he's on the floor. The main post sub is junior Eric Vierneisel (6'7" 205 lbs.), who is almost strictly a three-point threat. Over half his shots have come from beyond the arc where he is averaging 43%. He's not a particularly strong rebounder but he does provide Braun with some height. If Braun really needs size, he'll go to true center, freshman Taylor Harrison (6'9" 225 lbs.), but he rarely sees the floor for significant minutes.
The Bruins should expect to see zone, but they should be aware that Cal likes to mix up its looks, including some full and ¾-court pressure. The Bruins will have to be precise and patient on offense, at least until they break down Cal's will to play defense, which could happen. Cal will want this game badly so that they can pump up their NCAA chances, but the Bruins should come out fired up after their win against the Wildcats.
The big sticking point here is how the Bruins will play on the road. In Oregon, the Bruins played poorly against both OSU and the Ducks, and the poor play against Oregon cost them the game. Against USC, in L.A., the Bruins played one poor half of basketball before turning it on for the second half and eking out a win. This will be a tough game, but the Bruins have the deeper bench, and with Luc back, UCLA's depth should prove critical here. With Luc, the Bruins are probably too talented for Cal to win without the Bruins playing very poorly, even at Haas Pavilion.